Slaves risk lives to end 10-cen­turies-old in­sti­tu­tion

Trump’s sus­pen­sion of aid for lack of ac­tion gives hope

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY SOUMAILA DIARRA

BAMAKO, MALI | Hamey Coulibaly’s neigh­bors threat­ened to kill him when he pub­licly re­nounced his slave sta­tus in Septem­ber, forc­ing the fa­ther of seven to flee his home in Trouk­oumbe, a vil­lage in the south­west­ern part of Mali. He now lives in hid­ing in the West African coun­try’s cap­i­tal.

“How long this suf­fer­ing will con­tinue?” he said. “I’m wor­ried about the fu­ture, about my rel­a­tives liv­ing in hu­mil­i­a­tion in my vil­lage be­cause I de­cided to stand against slav­ery. Only God can help us.”

It seems in­con­ceiv­able in the 21st cen­tury, but Mr. Coulibaly is one of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of slaves — the ex­act num­ber is in sharp dis­pute — in Mali, liv­ing mostly in the coun­try’s south­west­ern and north­ern re­gions. He is a mem­ber of the Bam­bara mi­nor­ity, one of the groups whose mem­bers of­ten live in ef­fec­tive life­long servi­tude un­der eth­nic Soninke masters. In the north, the Touareg tend to own mem­bers of the mi­nor­ity Bella com­mu­nity.

Liv­ing un­der an in­sti­tu­tion that dates back at least 10 cen­turies, Malian slaves

can’t run for elected of­fice or marry non­slaves, and must la­bor as do­mes­tics. “You don’t have the right to be an imam and lead prayers in the mosques, even if you are the most ed­u­cated in Is­lamic cul­ture,” said Mr. Coulibaly, who also left his two wives back home.

Tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery is hered­i­tary in Mali. Its per­sis­tence and the vi­o­lence against those caught try­ing to es­cape servi­tude re­flect the deep-seated roots of the prac­tice, said Idrissa Ak­li­n­ine, an an­a­lyst for the Bamako-based Na­tional Coali­tion of Civil So­ci­ety, a hu­man rights ac­tivist group.

But as ex­pe­ri­ences of the U.S. and a range of other West­ern na­tions show, the prac­tice of slav­ery can change.

“What’s hap­pen­ing now to slave de­scen­dants in Soninke com­mu­ni­ties must ou­trage ev­ery Malian,” said Mr. Ak­li­n­ine. “Pres­i­dent Ibrahim Boubacar Keita needs to hear from those who de­nounce slav­ery. Then he can or­der his ser­vices to in­ves­ti­gate the al­le­ga­tions of anti-slav­ery move­ments.”

In Novem­ber, Malian slaves’ hope rose when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sus­pended aid to Mau­ri­ta­nia un­der the African Growth and Op­por­tu­nity Act, cit­ing the coun­try’s lack of progress in com­bat­ing slav­ery.

“We need strong ac­tions, like what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion did in Mau­ri­ta­nia,” said Mr. Ak­li­n­ine. “World lead­ers must join with Amer­ica.”

But of­fi­cials de­fended the gov­ern­ment’s cau­tion on re­forms, ar­gu­ing that the coun­try is fo­cused on fight­ing an Is­lamist in­sur­gency and armed groups of Touareg separatists and does not have the time or re­sources to tackle the slav­ery ques­tion right now.

“Peo­ple must un­der­stand that the gov­ern­ment and the Min­istry of Jus­tice are aware of the ne­ces­sity to pass a law crim­i­nal­iz­ing slav­ery,” said Boubacar Traore, a staff mem­ber of the Jus­tice Min­istry. “The de­lay, in my view­point, may be due to the coun­try’s in­se­cu­rity and its po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, which [have been] chal­leng­ing au­thor­i­ties for sev­eral years.”

Dan­ger­ous cam­paign

Mr. Coulibaly’s trou­bles started last sum­mer when he joined the lo­cal chap­ter of Gam­bana, a Euro­pean anti-slav­ery move­ment that op­er­ates in Mali, Gam­bia, Mau­ri­ta­nia and other West African coun­tries. In Septem­ber, he trav­eled with Gam­bana ac­tivists, declar­ing that they had sloughed off the yoke of slav­ery while draw­ing at­ten­tion to the harsh life they en­dured.

When he re­turned home, his neigh­bors — both masters and slaves who sup­ported tra­di­tional bondage ar­range­ments — were an­gry.

Van­dals de­stroyed his home and held his 80-year-old mother hostage for a day while forc­ing his brother to pull goat skin — a me­nial job in Mali that is re­served for slaves. The fam­ily suf­fered an­other blow when its peanut farm failed be­cause of the lo­cal hos­til­ity.

“I can’t un­der­stand why we are go­ing through all these abuses,” Mr. Coulibaly said. “It seems we are not cit­i­zens of the same coun­try.”

The com­pli­ca­tions are par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in north­ern Mali, where ac­tivists are protest­ing slav­ery and where armed separatists have been fight­ing the cen­tral gov­ern­ment for more than seven years.

Ab­doulaye Mako, the vice pres­i­dent of Temedt, an anti-slav­ery as­so­ci­a­tion based in north­ern Mali, ac­knowl­edged the tense sit­u­a­tion and said vi­o­lence is com­mon in dozens of vil­lages in the re­gion’s south­west.

Mr. Mako’s as­so­ci­a­tion de­cided to sue the ring­leaders of mobs who had or­ga­nized vi­o­lence against Mr. Coulibaly, his fam­ily and other vil­lagers in the re­gion where anti-slav­ery cam­paign­ers have been ac­tive. He and other Temedt ac­tivists went to Mr. Coulibaly’s vil­lage and read the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights in the pub­lic square.

The demon­stra­tion sparked a riot as lo­cals at­tacked them with ma­chetes and clubs.

“They didn’t want to hear that peo­ple are born equal,” said Mr. Mako. “Sud­denly, there were mur­murs and some started to [bat­ter] slave de­scen­dants around them. There was blood ev­ery­where.”

The law­suit helped lead to the ar­rest of a man in Bamako who posted an in­ter­net video call­ing for the deaths of anti-slav­ery cam­paign­ers. None of the Trouk­oumbe vil­lagers has been ar­rested.

Mr. Coulibaly re­cently heard that a crowd of slave sup­port­ers tied up his Gam­bana col­league Lassa Coulibaly in Ker­wane and dragged him on the ground. The col­league sur­vived but suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries.

Hamey Coulibaly said he fears what would hap­pen if his masters find him in Bamako.

“If they know that I’m liv­ing in this place, they will kill me,” he said.

SOUMAILA DIARRA/SPE­CIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

FREE­DOM AND FEAR: Hamey Coulibaly fled his home to es­cape vi­o­lence against slaves in Mali.

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